Foliage architecture (and art) on Rice University campus

At my alma mater in Houston last month (right after Hurricane Harvey), I appreciated the marriage of foliage and architecture at the Brochstein Pavilion, a remarkable structure and hub of student activity that didn’t exist when I was a student at Rice University.

A hedge of tightly clipped horsetail divides the pavilion’s patio from the main sidewalk, all of which is shaded by a wide trellis of aluminum tubes. The trellis roof seems to float ethereally over the space and provides a good deal of shade, which, if you’ve ever been to Houston, you know is essential. It also evokes the floating roof of the campus’s James Turrell Skyspace.

I’m always surprised by how much I love a bosque. I find them inviting and visually soothing. The one at Brochstein Pavilion runs alongside the building, just across the main sidewalk. According to an article in ArchDaily:

“Responding [to] the grid of the building, a bosque of 48 specimen Allee Lacebark Elms rise from a plane of decomposed granite and provide an organizational framework that humanizes the scale of the space. A generous concrete walk connecting the library and the pavilion bisects the grove into garden rooms whose perimeters are defined by plantings of African Iris. Long black concrete fountains filled with beach stone occupy the center of each space, filling the garden with the murmur of running water and reflecting the filtered light through the canopy.”

The contemporary trough fountains were leaf-strewn a week after Harvey, but otherwise the landscape appeared to have held up well.

On the other side of the pavilion, a broad allee of Southern live oaks — one of many such live oak allees on the Rice campus — shelters additional seating and leads the eye to a sculpture by Jaume Plensa called Mirror.

While I was on campus, I visited Fondren Library, where I knew there was a display of Mike Stilkey’s book sculptures. (Here’s an article about his exhibit at Rice Gallery.) I first discovered Stilkey’s work at the L.A. home of Joy and Roland Feuer (scroll down for their Stilkey installation). His work is striking, often humorous, and instantly recognizable. Speaking of trees, Stilkey used a book about Texas trees for the “capstone” of this monumental book sculpture…

…seen in full here, seemingly balanced atop a small stack of books painted with wavy apartment towers and whimsical animals.

I found other pieces throughout the library, like this doleful water bird in a top hat…

…and a giraffe peeking from a stairwell over a railing…

…and a slinking cat.

I’ll leave you with one last book sculpture that brings us back around to the theme of trees as architecture. And thanks for bearing with me as I veered off-topic a bit with my Foliage Follow-Up post!

This is my October post for Foliage Follow-Up. Fellow bloggers, what leafy loveliness is happening in your garden or one you’ve visited this month? Please join me in giving foliage its due on the day after Bloom Day. Leave a link to your post in a comment below. I’d appreciate it if you’ll also link to my post in your own — sharing link love! I look forward to seeing your foliage faves.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Don’t miss the Austin Open Days garden tour sponsored by the Garden Conservancy on November 4.

Join the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks! Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by inspiring designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Cornerstone Sonoma showcases conceptual gardens in scenic wine country

It wasn’t easy, but I finally visited the gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma in Northern California, which have been on my bucket list for years. Due to my own poor planning, I first missed them after the San Francisco Garden Bloggers Fling, when I rented a car to explore up to Stinson Beach but inexplicably forgot to push on to Cornerstone. Doh!

Determined not to repeat that mistake, I planned a visit to Cornerstone during a family road trip from San Francisco to Portland earlier this month. We arrived on a beautiful, sunny day in time for lunch and then poked around in the market’s charming shops along olive-lined lanes. As the midday heat eased, I headed eagerly to the gardens — where I learned to my dismay that they were closing in 5 minutes for a wedding! As we were escorted out by staff, I watched the bride, adorable flower children, and elegantly dressed guests heading into the gardens and glowered.

Foiled? Not hardly! The next day, while my husband and daughter went zip-lining among coastal redwoods, I drove an hour back to Cornerstone for a quick visit before my hour-long return trip to pick up my family. Was it worth all that trouble? Yes! Let me show you what it’s all about.

Mediterranean Meadow by John Greenlee

Cornerstone’s gardens consist of 9 small conceptual installations created by landscape architects and designers. Each plays off a particular theme, idea, or mood. Inspired by the International Garden Festival at Chaumont-Sur-Loire (also now on my bucket list), the Cornerstone gardens were designed to be temporary and originally numbered 20. However, to accommodate the relocation of Sunset’s test gardens in 2016, they were whittled down to the 9 that remain today.

Ornamental grass expert John Greenlee designed Mediterranean Meadow, a billowy meadowscape accented by two striking sculptures: an openwork steel sphere by Ivan McLean, which allows glimpses of the swaying grasses and golden hills beyond…

…and a stacked-stone ovoid with bands of terracotta and white.

In the distance you see a tall steel mobile sculpture…

Time Killer by Diego Harris, which is currently for sale if you have a large space in need of a special something.

Peeking through a window in its steel base, I spotted another artful installation…

Daisy Border by Ken Smith. Cornerstone’s website explains:

“Composed of classic daisy pinwheels — a common garden decoration on American lawns — the border is at once artificial and natural. Made of plastic, it nevertheless registers sun, rain, and wind.”

I like the contrast between the colorful, toylike pinwheels and the muscular agaves and tawny grasses in the next garden.

Garden of Contrast by James Van Sweden and Sheila Brady

Designed by the late James Van Sweden and by Sheila Brady, Garden of Contrast is maybe the most famous of the Cornerstone gardens. I was happy to see this one! Toothy green Agave salmiana reach up to touch the dusty-green leaves of olive trees, while tawny Mexican feathergrass sways in the breeze below. Three species of plants, all of which grow in Central Texas, planted to perfection!

As Cornerstone describes it, “This design offers a new paradigm for the American Garden. The garden’s ground plane, a plant tapestry[,] combines texture and form, color and scent, while a canopy of olive trees adds a third dimension that changes in color and opacity as the seasons advance.”

In springtime, wine-colored drumstick alliums and orange California poppies thread through the grasses and agaves, adding sparks of seasonal color. I’d love to see that.

I couldn’t get enough of the contrast between muscular, stiff-leaved, saw-toothed agaves and feathery, pliable, strokable grasses. Actually I stroked the agaves too.

This agave is a monster at over 6 feet tall. Behind it, a diagonal line of rosemary bisects the garden, separating the sunny, grassy side from the olive-shaded, woodsy side.

Under the olives rests a huge steel-and-stone sphere, also by Ivan McLean, who writes:

“Noyo cobbles are the name of locally, Sonoma County area, found stones, 4″ to 8″ or so in size. It took 2 yards to fill this 60″ sphere, about 6,ooo pounds. It’s placed in a garden whose theme is ‘contrasts’, so you have the sphere made from squares and rectangles filled with round stones and a very heavy sculpture looking very light, at least that was the idea.”

In the Air by Conway Cheng Chang

I imagine plenty of engagement photos have been taken in the romantic and heart-adorned In the Air garden, designed by Conway Cheng Chang. Rebar arches help vines clamber over billowy, sedge-lined paths on one side.

On the other, a geometric arbor supports a cloud of white roses, and interlocking steel hearts playfully divide the garden in two.

Hearts and sedge

Love must be in the air.

As Cornerstone describes it:

In the Air intends to be playful and critical, spontaneous and composed. Air penetrates and circulates through all living organisms. It fills the in-between spaces and supports human life and emotions. The garden was created to reveal the form of air and in doing so help us understand and appreciate it.”

Purple clematis

And another purple clematis

Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers by Mario Schjetnan

A memorial to Mexican agricultural workers, Small Tribute to Immigrant Workers is the creation of Mario Schjetnan.

A maze of walls — red-painted plywood, corrugated steel, and rock-filled gabion — seems to reluctantly allow entry, each with photos and text about the dangers faced by migrants desperate to cross the border to find work.


A simple shrine hangs on a gabion wall, offering a place for prayers.

On the other side of the wall lie plots of edibles symbolizing the agricultural fields of California.


Eucalyptus Soliloquy by Walter Hood and Alma Du Solier

Towering eucalyptus trees line the roads in Sonoma, and Eucalyptus Soliloquy pays tribute to them. A gabion wall stuffed with eucalyptus leaf litter and a trellis screen of pinned eucalyptus leaves line a long path toward a view of a pond.

Cornerstone says, “The Sonoma landscape features eucalyptus windbreaks that divide field and vineyard. Eucalyptus Soliloquy is a conversation between distant groves and a built landscape of borrowed trees, orphan leaves, branches and seeds.”

Rise by Roger Raiche and David McCrory

Rise, designed by Roger Raiche and David McCrory, is one of my favorite gardens at Cornerstone. Its iconic steel culvert tunnel makes a playful path through the garden and seems to shrink you, Wonderland-style, to childlike dimensions as you pass through.

See what I mean? Cornerstone says:

“Rise is a celebration of color, texture, diversity, light, space and life. The plantings and landform, modeled on a natural landscape, are exaggerated to enhance the sense of separation from reality. Likewise the pipe exaggerates the sense of transition from one world into another.”

Walking through, you get a porthole view of a neighboring vineyard.

But the garden itself transports you to a tropicalesque jungle of dramatic foliage.

Sizzling! Later, Loree Bohl of Danger Garden asked me if I’d seen the Marcia Donahue garden at Cornerstone. I immediately knew she was referring to this distinctive garden.

Donahue’s artwork adorns the garden, like this tree necklace and some of her ceramic bamboo sculptures (previous photo).

More of her bamboo, at left of the tunnel.

Flowering fuchsia adds its own bright adornment, like dangling earrings.

Rise overlooks a large rectangular pond that stretches invitingly behind several of the gardens.

As you approach, hedges frame a view of the pond and ornamental grasses that overhang the far side.

Waterlily circles seem to skip across the water, echoing the rhythm of the tall grasses.

Beyond that, rows of grapevines establish their own rhythm, leading the eye to distant hills.

Bai Yun (White Cloud) by Andy Cao and Xavier Perrot

Bai Yun (White Cloud) is hard to photograph but absolutely mesmerizing in person. Fluffy clouds of wire mesh, suspended by metal posts, drip with hundreds of raindrop-like crystals over a desertscape of prickly pear and white dunes. Shadows are surely an intentional part of the design as well.

Such creativity!

You can’t help musing about drought, the preciousness of water, and gratitude for rain when you look at it.

Serenity Garden by Yoji Sasaki

Along a straight main path, narrow paving strips extend on either side into a green lawn in Serenity Garden. Cornerstone says, “Each element in this garden has been carefully selected for its effect, particularly of its ability to point to or register the ever-changing aspects of nature — shadows, wind, borrowed scenery and material texture.”

I wasn’t moved by this garden, but I did stop to appreciate the rough bark of the pine trees along the back hedge.

Birch Bosque

On the other hand, I loved this bosque of birches in the garden next door. I have a thing for bosques. I find the simple geometry of tree trunks, open space, and (usually) a hedge enclosure to be very soothing.

This garden lacked signage, and it’s not included in Cornerstone’s list of gardens. A little online sleuthing told me that it was formerly a garden by Topher Delaney called Garden Play. The original blue-striped wall and rope balls no longer exist, and an enclosing hedge now frames a view of a vineyard (previous photo).

That settles it: I am going to have a bosque of my own one day. But what kind of tree, I wonder?

Pollinator Garden

Another garden not listed on Cornerstone’s website, as of this writing, is a brand-new space that I believe was labeled as a pollinator garden.

A barn-like structure (wedding venue?) with a central hallway frames it nicely.

Bright with coneflowers, salvias and more, it’s sure to be a hit with insects, birds, and people.

Children’s Garden by MIG Incorporated

The last Cornerstone garden is a children’s garden by MIG. I was struck by the fact that this kids’ space is largely organized around a mini vineyard. Starting ’em young out in wine country!

A few colorful playhouses and birdhouses on tall poles add a little kid flavor.

But really, this space is all about the grapes. Which is an appropriate way to end a post about a garden in Sonoma.

Up next: The picture-perfect Sunset Test Gardens at Cornerstone Sonoma.

I welcome your comments; please scroll to the end of this post to leave one. If you’re reading this in a subscription email, click here to visit Digging and find the comment box at the end of each post.

Digging Deeper: News and Upcoming Events

Get on the mailing list for Garden Spark Talks. Inspired by the idea of house concerts, I’m hosting a series of garden talks by talented designers and authors out of my home. Talks are limited-attendance events and generally sell out within just a few days, so join the Garden Spark email list for early notifications. Simply click this link and ask to be added.

All material © 2006-2017 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.

Up on the High Line, a skyline promenade

Have you ever flown across the country to see one garden? I did last weekend. Rapturous articles and blog posts about the High Line, New York City’s garden-park conversion of an abandoned elevated rail line through the city’s old Meatpacking District, had seduced me for 5 years. One day last June, I suddenly resolved to go see it and invited my teenage daughter to join me on a girls’ garden-visiting, Broadway show-watching, big-city adventure. We flew to NYC last Friday, and on a cool, rainy Saturday we toured Wave Hill and New York Botanical Garden and caught an evening show. With an eye on the weather forecast, we reserved sunny Sunday, our last day, for the High Line.

Wanting to get there early to beat the crowds, I set my alarm, yet we both managed to oversleep. Rushing out without breakfast, we took the subway from our Times Square hotel, paused to gawk at caped and costumed Comic Con attendees streaming into the Javits Center, and entered the High Line on the northernmost end by the Rail Yards — the park’s newest section — around 10 am.

It was a crisp fall morning, and the first sunshine in days was peeking through the condos and other high-rises that surround the park and cast long shadows except at midday.

This new section of the park incorporates portions of the original railroad tracks into the pathways.

Exposed rails entice balancing acts, but the middle is smooth enough for strollers and wheelchairs thanks to a composite material that resembles the loose gravel that used to fill the space between the ties.

Cool design elements like “peel-up benches” seem to rise up out of the aggregate planking strips that make up the paths.

Old rail switches remain here and there for children to play with.

The High Line is only about one-and-a-half miles long, and it consists mainly of narrow planting beds on either side of a zigzagging, boardwalk-style path that runs its length. Essentially a green roof, planting pockets are shallow, only 18 to 36 inches, which manage to support an extensive number of species, from wildflowers and perennials to shrubs and trees.

But all these onlys and restrictive elements can’t convey the expansive experience of walking the High Line. Liberated from the street, you’re up there, three stories high amid the architecture of Manhattan that spans two centuries. There’s a certain peacefulness to it, but also an energy and a sense of companionability. You feel connected to the city and your fellow High Liners.

The story of the High Line is a nail-biter, its improbable success already legendary. After 40 years of rail deliveries, trucking put the rail line out of business, and the High Line fell into disuse in the late 1970s. Lined with razor wire that couldn’t keep out vagrants, drug users, and adventurers, it became overgrown with opportunistic “weeds” like Queen Anne’s lace, chives, and ailanthus trees. Many people considered it an eyesore, and the city was on the verge of tearing it down when Friends of the High Line was formed to save it. For publicity purposes, the group hired landscape photographer Joel Sternfeld to photograph the High Line in all its wild, lonely beauty, and his images galvanized the public and the city to preserve the space as a park.

An international design competition was held, and the winning team of landscape architect James Corner Field Operations, architects Diller Scofidio + Renfro, and planting designer Piet Oudolf proposed to remake the line into a promenade and garden that pays tribute to the original, self-seeded wildscape that New Yorkers fell in love with. The first section opened in 2009, the latest in September of this year.

Development around the wildly popular park has been explosive. Cranes and construction are evident all along the park’s length but especially at the grittier northern end.

The Chrysler Building (above) and Empire State Building are visible from the High Line for now, although expected development will surely transform skyline views during the next decade.

The genius of the High Line, as many enthused critics have pointed out, is that it puts the city on view rather than closing it off with screenings of plants or manmade structures. The High Line is not a retreat from city life, at least not in the traditional, encompassing Central Park fashion, but a viewing platform for it. For example, where a billboard over 26th Street once peddled goods to passersby below, today its empty frame invites viewing of the street from built-in benches.

Park-goers, of course, are likewise framed for viewing by pedestrians on the street. It’s a playful interaction between the park and the surrounding city.

Art is also an important part of the High Line experience. Temporary exhibits of murals, sculpture, and performance art are commissioned by Friends of the High Line, which employs a full-time curator. Muralists who paint nearby buildings and street artists also find ways to put their own stamp on the High Line experience.

This explosively colorful mural comes into view at West 25th Street and 10th Avenue, stopping southbound park walkers in their tracks. Painted by Brazilian muralist Eduardo Kobra, it’s his reimagining of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s famous photo V-J Day in Times Square.

On a nearby bench, life was imitating art.

Dutch horticulturist Piet Oudolf’s grassy, American-meadow planting scheme is very much part of the park’s appeal too. You won’t see sweeping beds of colorful, pampered annuals here, nor Main Street-style hanging baskets. Instead, the gardens pay homage to the tough native and exotic plants — i.e., weeds — that grew here during the abandoned years.

Warm-season grasses, which don’t really get going until midsummer and bloom in fall, dominate large sections of the gardens and were aglow this sunny morning. Their touchable texture encourages you to run your hands along sweeps of prairie dropseed, sideoats grama, autumn moor grass, switchgrass, and little bluestem.

Alternating with open “grasslands” are sections of path enclosed by shrubbier plants.

The High Line gives you an up-close look at many interesting buildings along the way, and sometimes into the windows of residential apartments and studios.

This is 245 Tenth Avenue, one of the many new condominiums springing up along the High Line.

The original railings over streets, which create a fascinating shadow play, have been preserved.

A rectangular lawn overlooks 23rd Street along its length. A bit threadbare, it was closed for renovation during our visit.

Passing the open lawn you enter Chelsea Thicket, a densely planted, tunnel-like space that makes you feel as though you’re walking through a forest.

You emerge into another grassland and a small plaza whose openness is enhanced by contrast with the thicket.

Just ahead is a popular spot, Tenth Avenue Square, with peel-up benches arrayed under a bosque of maple trees.

Those peel-up benches make fun ramps for kids.

From the square you get a nice view of the Northern Spur Horticultural Preserve, a short, nonwalkable section that’s planted to evoke the wildscape that preceded the park.

Before the High Line was built to move the trains off the streets, Tenth Avenue was known as Death Avenue because of all the train-pedestrian accidents. Today the Tenth Avenue Amphitheater offers bleacher-style seating and a framed view of car and pedestrian traffic on the street below.

As hypnotic as a flickering fireplace, the Tenth Avenue view holds your attention, even on a sleepy Sunday morning. In the movie What Maisie Knew, a charming scene was filmed here, and I was excited to see it in person.

At this point, my daughter and I took the stairs down to Chelsea Market, an indoor retail and food market, for brunch. We came back up about an hour and a half later, sat on the bleachers for a while, and then continued our southbound High Line walk.

A yoga studio whose windows are level with the High Line had a class in session, and we stopped to watch for a few minutes.

Moving on, I noticed blush-pink hydrangea blossoms fading to green in the chilly fall weather.

Purple coneflower had gone to seed as well. Like all perennials on the High Line, they’ll be left standing through winter to provide food and cover for birds and other wildlife plus interesting views for visitors. In late winter everything is cut back to allow spring bulbs their shining moment and make room for new growth.

The design of paving strips with plants growing between them is one of the splendid design elements of the High Line, evoking the way plants colonize manmade structures over time. Unfortunately, their raised edges, which blend so well into the walkable paving, are a tripping hazard. You can see that low cable barriers have been installed, probably in an attempt to keep people out of the plants as well as to prevent tripping. But the irregular design that looks so great makes it difficult to rope off all the raised edges, and I stumbled over them a few times myself. The cables also detract unfortunately from the clean design of the paving. It’s too bad that the planted strips weren’t made level with the paths, but too late now.

Continuing south we entered Chelsea Market Passage, where trains once loaded and unloaded goods in the old Nabisco building. Today it’s a covered plaza with colorful bistro seating and art, food, and souvenir vendors.

The stained-glass windows in the Passage are an artwork by Spencer Finch called The River That Flows Both Ways, referring to the tidal movements of the Hudson River. Finch spent a day on the Hudson photographing the river once a minute. One pixel of color from each image was arranged chronologically on the windows to represent the passage of time and the elusive color of water. The actual colors at top are much bluer than my camera captured.

This is a little better.

And there’s the Hudson itself, one of many views you can enjoy from various points along the High Line.

Coming up: Part 2 of my visit to the High Line, continuing south to the steps at Gansevoort Street and our return northbound stroll later that afternoon.

All material © 2006-2014 by Pam Penick for Digging. Unauthorized reproduction prohibited.